Forde Minutes: Breaking Down Every Remaining Conference Tournament

Pat Forde makes his picks for 17 league tournaments this week, plus looks at the weekend's bubble carnage.
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (dancing shoes sold separately at Morehead State, Winthrop, Liberty and Loyola):

MICHIGAN’S WOBBLY WEEK HELPS THE BIG TEN

After appearing bulletproof for weeks, Michigan (1) helped out its fellow Big Ten members by dropping two of its last three games.

One was to Illinois (2), helping the Illini lock up the fourth No. 1 seed. (The other three are Gonzaga, Baylor and the Wolverines. There is no tangible drama left in that chase as we head toward Selection Sunday.) Now all that remains is for the two programs to squabble over who is the real Big Ten champion. Michigan is officially recognized as such based on winning percentage (.824 to Illinois’s .800). But the Illini would like the race to be viewed like baseball standings, in which their 16–4 record would be a half game ahead of the Wolverines’ 14–3. There also is the matter of the lone head-to-head matchup, which went emphatically to Illinois in Ann Arbor. The two programs have created some friction between them, which will add juice to a potential matchup this week in Indianapolis—or later down the road in Indy when the stakes are highest.

The other Michigan loss was Sunday to Michigan State (3), which probably scrambled off the bubble and into the field with the victory. As The Minutes has noted previously, Tom Izzo seems to thrive on crisis—and boy did he give himself one to fight through this season. 

The Spartans were 10–9 on Feb. 14, 4–9 in the league, seemingly dead in the water in terms of NCAA at-large consideration. Then they found themselves and finished 5–2, with whopper wins over Michigan, Illinois and Ohio State. They remain below .500 in league play, but the Big Ten was a monster conference and the Spartans should have enough quality wins to get in. But a Thursday matinee game against Maryland could loom as the last impediment.

BUBBLE CARNAGE

Michigan State’s path back into the bracket was in part cleared by a swath of bubble carnage (4) over the weekend. Duke (5), Saint Louis and Seton Hall all lost handily Saturday. Xavier continued to drop games to middling competition, most recently Marquette. Memphis missed a golden opportunity for a bid-clinching victory Sunday when Houston threw in a 40-footer at the buzzer. And Maryland, which seemingly had put itself in secure position, finished the regular-season with losses to Northwestern and Penn State—the latter culminating a sweep at the hands of the Nittany Lions. To make it worse, the Terrapins all but had the rematch with Nittany Lions won Sunday night before going from 14 up to five down in the final 10 minutes. Listen closely and you can hear years of criticism of Mark Turgeon rumbling back to the surface.

Drake (6) and VCU (7) might have been the only serious bubble teams that won tournament games Saturday, enhancing the likelihood that both the Missouri Valley and Atlantic 10 will be multi-bid leagues. (Utah State avoided a bad loss to Fresno State to end its regular season.) Drake eventually succumbed in the Valley final to Loyola Chicago, while the Rams will play St. Bonaventure in the A-10 final Sunday. The Bulldogs will be a particularly interesting case for the committee, owning a gaudy record (25–4) but not a lot of high-caliber victories.

Kentucky athletic director and selection committee chairman Mitch Barnhart said Friday on the NCAA’s Social Series webcast that his group will rely on “the foundational piece of who did you play, where did you play them and what was the result?”

The “where did you play them” part is interesting, because when it comes to the bubble not all schedules were created (or, more importantly, played) equally. Take Xavier (8), which played all of six games outside the city of Cincinnati and lost five of them. The only road victory is over a Butler team that is 9–14.

The Musketeers have played just seven of 20 games on the road, a mere 35 percent. The one bubble team with an even lower percentage of road games: Saint Louis (9), which played just five on the road and 13 at home, with two at neutral sites. The bubble road warrior is Seton Hall (10), playing 13 true road games, 11 at home and one at a neutral site.

Houston's Quentin Grimes, Iona coach Rick Pitino and Baylor's Adam Flagler

LITTLE DANCE, PART II

This week The Minutes finishes breaking down the conference tournaments that set the stage for the NCAA tournament. This is where much of the best action of March unfolds, so don’t cheat yourself out of quality time watching these games. (If you missed last week’s conference tourney picks, they’re here.)

American Athletic Conference

When: Thursday through Sunday.

Top seed: Wichita State (11). The Shockers (15–4, 11–2) are on a seven-game winning streak, but have played only two games since Feb. 18. They’ve played four fewer league games than second-place Houston. A five-point win over the Cougars is doing a lot (all?) of the work on the Shockers’ NCAA résumé.

Top threat to the top seed: Houston. The Cougars (21-3, 14–3) have been the best team in the league all year, and all last year, and all the year before that. They’ve played one truly bad game this season, losing at last-place East Carolina. Simply avoiding another one of those should put them no lower than the third seed line for the NCAA tourney.

Tourney teams: Houston.

Bubble: Wichita State, Memphis, SMU. The Shockers should be in with a quarterfinal win over either South Florida or Temple. Third seed Memphis and fourth seed SMU might need to win multiple games.

Best early-round matchup: A UCF-Memphis quarterfinal would give the Knights a chance to reverse regular-season losses to the Tigers. UCF is on a four-game winning streak; Memphis cannot afford to be upset in this tourney.

Biggest riser (using KenPom ratings from beginning of season to end): Tulane, up 82 spots from 228 to 146.

Biggest faller: South Florida, down 85 spots from 91 to 176.

Best player: Quentin Grimes, Houston. The former Kansas Jayhawk is having a big year, averaging 17.9 points, 6.1 rebounds. Both of those are career highs by a considerable margin.

Best coach: Kelvin Sampson, Houston. Only one current coach in the league has been to the Final Four, and that’s Sampson. He’s won at least 20 games in 16 of his last 17 seasons as a head coach.

Minutes pick: Houston (12).

ACC

When: Tuesday through Saturday.

Top seed: Virginia (13). The Cavaliers (17–6, 13–4) are a notch beneath their customary defensive standards, but a closing-two game winning streak combined with Florida State losing two of its last three opened the door for a third regular-season title in the last four seasons.

Top threat to the top seed: The Seminoles certainly spring to mind, but don’t overlook Georgia Tech. The veteran Yellow Jackets (15–8, 11–6) ramped up their level of play in mid-February and arrive in Greensboro on a six-game winning streak. The hurdle here: Josh Pastner has never won an ACC tournament game.

Tourney teams: Virginia, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Clemson, Louisville.

Bubble: Syracuse, North Carolina State and Duke. The Orange and Wolfpack meet at noon Wednesday in a bubble elimination game. Syracuse might be in with one win, while NC State and Duke will need multiple wins just to get into the discussion.

Best early-round matchup: A potential Duke-Louisville 7–10 game Wednesday would be of high interest. The Blue Devils need wins to get into serious bubble consideration, and Louisville might be feeling a thing of anxiety itself after closing the regular season 4–5. But two of those wins are over Duke.

Biggest riser: Georgia Tech, up 40 spots from 72 to 32.

Biggest faller: Miami, down 104 spots from 39 to 143.

Best player: Moses Wright, Georgia Tech. The active big man has contributed games with as many as seven blocks, six steals and five assists, while averaging 18 points and 8.1 rebounds. The Yellow Jackets wouldn’t be on the right side of the bubble without his senior surge.

Best coach: Mike Krzyzewski, Duke. Five national titles, a record 15 ACC tournament titles, and a record 65 ACC tournament victories. He needs to add to the latter total this week.

Minutes pick: Georgia Tech (14).

Big 12

When: Wednesday through Saturday.

Top seed: Baylor. The Bears (21–1, 13–1) dominated the league, winning it by five games in the loss column and rarely being threatened. A deep and versatile team has another weapon with the late-season emergence of Matthew Mayer in big wins over West Virginia and Oklahoma State.

Top threat to the top seed: Kansas (15). The Jayhawks (19–8, 12–6) are the only team to beat Baylor, and they closed the season winning seven of their last eight. This isn’t a vintage Kansas team, but it has improved significantly from the group that went 3–5 in January.

Tourney teams: Baylor, West Virginia, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma.

Bubble: None. This is the most unambiguous of the power conferences.

Best early-round matchup: No. 4 West Virginia vs. No. 5 Oklahoma State tips off what should be a very good Thursday round in Kansas City. The Mountaineers and Cowboys split their regular-season meetings, with the total score of Oklahoma State 169, WVU 167. The Mountaineers won with a breathtaking rally in Stillwater, and the Cowboys won without Cade Cunningham in Morgantown.

Biggest riser: Baylor, up one spot from 3 to 2. Everyone else in the league has fallen.

Biggest faller: Iowa State, down 115 spots from 65 to 180.

Best player: Jared Butler, Baylor. The junior guard has been the heart of the program ascendance over the past two seasons, shooting a career-best 44% from three and a career-best 54% from two. He’s capable of making the big shots, and also dishing to teammates for the big shots. And he can guard.

Best coach: Bill Self, Kansas. Six of the league’s 10 coaches have been to the Final Four, but only one has won it. And Self would have been the favorite to capture a second ring if there had been a 2020 NCAA tournament.

Minutes pick: Baylor (16).

Big East

When: Wednesday through Saturday.

Top seed: Villanova (17). The Wildcats (16–5, 11–4) are hurting, losing two of their last three and suffering some brutal injury luck last week. They’re without starting point guard Collin Gillespie after a season-ended MCL tear against Creighton, and fellow guard Justin Moore sprained an ankle Saturday against Providence. (His availability hasn’t yet been determined.) ’Nova’s streak of three straight Big East tourney titles is in jeopardy.

Top threat to the top seed: Connecticut. With the injuries at Villanova, the Huskies (14–6, 11–6) have become the trendy (perhaps too obvious) pick in this tourney. They are on a four-game winning streak and have won six of their last seven. They’ve got the best defensive numbers in conference play.

Tourney teams: Villanova, Creighton, Connecticut.

Bubble: Xavier, Seton Hall, St. John’s. This could be the most interesting bubble tourney of them all. The Pirates and Musketeers have played themselves out of good positioning and now need wins in New York. The Red Storm are still trying to overcome the often fatal bubble gaffe of losing at home to DePaul.

Best early-round matchup: St. John’s-Seton Hall in a Thursday afternoon game could be a battle for bubble survival between teams that split in the regular season.

Biggest riser: UConn, up 20 spots from 43 to 23.

Biggest faller: Butler, down 53 spots from 57 to 110.

Best player: James Bouknight, UConn. The sophomore guard missed eight games but has come back with a vengeance, leading the Huskies’ late-season renaissance. In his six games back he’s averaging 19.5 points and 5.8 rebounds, and made five threes Saturday against Georgetown.

Best coach: Jay Wright, Villanova. Winner of two national titles and recent owner of this event, Wright will have to do some of his best work to give the Wildcats a chance at a run here and in the next tourney.

Minutes pick: UConn (18).

Big Sky

When: Wednesday through Saturday

Top seed: Southern Utah. How big a breakthrough was this year for the Thunderbirds (19–3, 12–2)? They not only won their first Big Sky regular-season title, it was their first winning record in conference play since 2002. Now they’ll try to lock down their first NCAA bid since ’01.

Top threat to the top seed: Eastern Washington. The Eagles (13–7, 12–3) got off to a stumbling start against tough competition, going 3–6 through their first nine games. Since then they’ve been 10–1. They probably have the best two-man tandem in the conference in Tanner Groves and Kim Aiken Jr., who combine for 28.5 points and 15.9 rebounds per game.

Best player: In a league full of balanced teams, let’s go with Southern Utah guard John Knight III. He’s averaging 13.6 points, 4.3 rebounds. 4.3 assists and 1.5 steals—and he might be the only 6' 3" player leading his conference in field goal percentage (57.7).

Best coach: Montana coach Travis DeCuire has won the last two Big Sky tourneys that were completed. It will be a bigger challenge this season as a No. 6 seed, but don’t count him and the Grizzlies out.

Minutes pick: Eastern Washington (19).

MSU's Rocket Watts dribbles against Michigan's Mike Smith

Big Ten

When: Wednesday through Sunday.

Top seed: Michigan. The Wolverines (19–3, 14–3) have had a brilliant season, stumbling slightly at the end but nevertheless entering this tourney playing with house money—they have not just an NCAA bid, but likely a No. 1 seed, locked up. With imposing length, Michigan has been the top defensive team in the Big Ten. One of the questions will be the availability of starting guard Eli Brooks, who rolled an ankle against Michigan State on Sunday.

Top threat to the top seed: Illinois. Nobody in the U.S. closed the regular season with a better flourish than the Illini (20–6, 16–4), winning at Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State. Ayo Dosunmu (20) returned from facial injury in a black Batman mask and resumed his hero role. Kofi Cockburn is scattering bodies inside. Freshman guard Andre Curbelo is rising to the occasion right on time.

Tourney teams: Michigan, Illinois, Ohio State, Iowa, Purdue, Wisconsin, Rutgers.

Bubble: Michigan State, Maryland. The Spartans likely are on the right side of the bubble at the moment; the Terrapins gave away a whole lot of hard-earned positioning in the last two games.

Best early-round game: Maryland-Michigan State is a Thursday bubble struggle extraordinaire. They might both make the field regardless, but the best way to be sure is to win this one and advance.

Biggest riser: Penn State, up 28 spots from 63 to 35.

Biggest faller: Michigan State, down 50 spots from 11 to 61.

Best player: Tough call between Dosunmu and Iowa’s Luka Garza, but The Minutes is going with Dosunmu. Capable of triple doubles and taking over games late, the 6' 5" guard might be the best player in the nation.

Best coach: Of the league’s 14 coaches, 13 have never led a team to the Final Four. One of them has done it eight times, winning a national title in 2000. His name is Tom Izzo (21).

Minutes pick: Illinois.

Big West

When: Tuesday through Saturday.

Top seed: UC Santa Barbara. Since being swept by UC Irvine in late December, the Gauchos (19–4, 13–3) have dominated the league. Joe Pasternack is one win away from a fourth straight 20-victory season since taking over Santa Barbara, and this year it looks like he has the team to earn the school’s first NCAA bid in a decade.

Top threat to the top seed: UC Riverside. The Highlanders (13–7, 8–4) are the only team to beat Santa Barbara this calendar year, and they did it by 16 points on Feb. 27. In his first season as head coach, Mike Magpayo has taken Riverside to its first winning record in conference play since moving to Division I in 2001.

Best player: JaQuori McLaughlin, UCSB. The guard who started his career at Oregon State leads a balanced Gauchos attack with team highs of 15.6 points and 5.4 assists. He and fellow guard Devearl Ramsey are the only Gauchos who log more than 30 minutes per game.

Best coach: UC Irvine’s Russell Turner is completing his ninth straight winning season and has taken the Anteaters to the NCAA tourney twice. The height fetishist who once started a lineup that included players measuring 7' 6", 7' 2", 6' 10" and 6' 10" has got plenty of length at his disposal again, with four players 6' 9" or taller in the rotation.

Minutes pick: UC Santa Barbara (22).

Conference USA

When: Tuesday through Saturday.

Top seed: Western Kentucky is the top seed from the East, Louisiana Tech is the top seed from the West.

Top threat to the top seed: Marshall. The Thundering Herd have been the best offensive team in league play, operate at the highest tempo, and have a takeover guy in 6' 5" Taevion Kinsey. He’s played at least 37 minutes in 16 of Marshall’s 21 games.

Best player: Charles Bassey, Western Kentucky. A prized recruit some thought might be a one-and-done NBA prospect is still around as a junior, and still causing problems for opposing big men. The 6' 10", 235-pounder has had 10 games with at least 20 points and nine games with at least 14 rebounds. He’s also blocked 70 shots in 23 games.

Best coach: Jeff Jones has won 25 or more games four times in eight seasons at Old Dominion, and he took the Monarchs to the 2019 NCAA tournament. If you get in a close game against his team, good luck. ODU is 7–1 in games decided by five points or fewer this season.

Minutes pick: Marshall (23).

MAAC

When: Tuesday through Saturday.

Top seed: Siena. The Saints (12–4) have four losses by a total of 10 points. They’ve been the most consistent team in the league, although their shooting can be sketchy from the foul line (66.9% ) or the three-point line (12 for 66 in their three most recent losses).

Top threat to the top seed: Iona. The Gaels (8–5) have two big problems to overcome—they were given a No. 9 seed despite a 6–3 league record, and they haven’t played since Feb. 20. But when they have played, they’ve been the best offensive team in the MAAC. And they have a coach who is pretty good in March.

Best player: Manny Camper, Siena. The 6' 7" senior averages a double double (14.6 points and 10 rebounds) while also leading the Saints in steals (1.1) and ranking second in assists (3.9).

Best coach: Rick Pitino. He’s won national titles, been to Final Fours, been to Hell and back by his own doing. If Pitino can buck the national trend of teams flopping off long layoffs, he can go from a Tuesday first-round game to the Big Dance. If so, it would be his fifth school to take to the tournament.

Minutes pick: Iona (24).

MAC

When: Thursday through Saturday.

Top seed: Toledo. The Rockets (20–7, 15–4) have been the league’s best offensive team, and one of the best in the nation. Accurate shooters and willing passers, they have scored 80 or more points in nine of the last 10 games. Tod Kowalczyk has been winning games in the Midwest for a lot of years and might finally have his NCAA tournament team.

Top threat to the top seed: Buffalo. The second-seeded Bulls (14–7, 12–5) have won five in a row and eight of their last nine, losing to only Toledo in that span. They are the league’s fastest-paced team, with Jim Whitesell continuing the tempo that Bobby Hurley and Nate Oats established before him.

Best player: Marreon Jackson, Toledo. He gets a whole lot done at 6' 1". The senior has had two triple doubles in the last month, going for 22-13-10 against Ball State and 18-10-11 against Miami (Ohio). In his last nine games he’s averaged 18.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 7.2 assists. Phenomenal production.

Best coach: John Groce, Akron. Back in the MAC after five years at Illinois, Groce probably had the best team in the league last year but didn’t get a chance to finish the deal in the tournament. He twice took Ohio not only to the NCAAs, but won games there both times. His Zips should be a dangerous team in this tourney.

Minutes pick: Toledo (25)

MEAC

When: Thursday through Saturday.

Top seed: Coppin State is the top seed from the North, North Carolina A&T is the top seed from the South. A&T rolled through its league schedule 7–1 and has won eight of its last nine. Coppin, coached by 2002 NCAA tourney hero Juan Dixon and playing at the fastest tempo in the country, has won three straight and six of its last nine.

Top threat to the top seed: North Carolina Central. At 5–8 and 3–5, the Eagles don’t look like much of a threat. But LeVelle Moton has owned this tournament in recent seasons, winning three straight from 2017–19. Don’t be shocked if they’re the last team standing.

Best player: Anthony Tarke, Coppin State. Transfer by way of UTEP and NJIT has done his best work since getting away from the acronym schools. Tarke leads his team in everything: scoring (16.4 points per game), rebounding (8.4), assists (3.7), steals (2.7) and blocks (1.9).

Best coach: Moton. See above. He’s taken North Carolina Central to the tournament four times, and last year could have been the fifth.

Minutes pick: North Carolina A&T (26).

Mountain West

When: Wednesday through Saturday.

Top seed: San Diego State. The Aztecs (20–4, 14–3) haven’t lost in two months. They are, once again, a vigilant defensive bunch, allowing 70 points just once since Jan. 2. Getting do-everything forward Matt Mitchell back to full health (or close enough) the last few weeks has been vital.

Top threat to the top seed: Colorado State (27). The Rams (17–5, 14–4) lost a poorly scheduled makeup game at Nevada Friday to elevate their bubble tension, but this is a quality team that split with San Diego State and nearly took down the Aztecs in San Diego last February. Coach Niko Medved is an NCAA tourney bid away from getting a Power 6 job.

Tourney team: San Diego State.

Bubble: Colorado State, Boise State, Utah State.

Best early-round game: No. 4 seed Boise State absolutely needs to win its quarterfinal opener. The opponent is a Nevada team that swept the Broncos in early February.

Biggest riser: Colorado State, up 58 spots from 118 to 60.

Biggest faller: Air Force, down 100 spots from 227 to 327.

Best player: Neemias Queta of Utah State is a 7-footer who plays like a 7-footer, leading the league in blocks (three per game) while also averaging 14.7 points and 9.9 rebounds. He’s also averaging 3.2 assists and 1.4 steals over his last five games, trying to will the Aggies off the bubble and into the tournament.

Best coach: Brian Dutcher, San Diego State. All he’s done since taking over for Steve Fisher is go 93–30. Last year’s 30–2 team might have made a deep NCAA run, if it had a chance. Will Dutcher, son of former Minnesota coach Jim Dutcher, be in the mix for that job if/when Richard Pitino is let go?

Minutes pick: San Diego State (28).

Oregon basketball

Pac-12

When: Wednesday through Saturday.

Top seed: Oregon (29). The Ducks (19–5, 14–4) won 10 of their last 11 to take the league title. Led by the senior duo of Chris Duarte (junior-college transfer) and Eugene Omoruyi (Rutgers transfer), Oregon once again has the best offensive team in the league. The Ducks have made do nicely after losing point guard Payton Pritchard to graduation last year and a knee injury to five-star freshman N’Faly Dante early in the season.

Top threat to the top seed: USC. The Trojans (21–6, 15–5) were on pace to win the conference before stumbling late on the road at Utah and Colorado, and now enter the tourney as the second seed. Andy Enfield has won at least one game in the Pac-12 tourney the last five times it has been held but has never claimed the hardware. The opportunity is clear and present.

Tourney teams: Oregon, USC, Colorado, UCLA.

Bubble: None.

Biggest riser: USC, up 33 spots from 48 to 15.

Biggest faller: Washington, down 105 spots from 72 to 177.

Best player: Evan Mobley, USC. Considered a likely top-two NBA draft pick this summer, Mobley has delivered in his one season as a Trojan. He’s leading the team in scoring (16.1), rebounds (8.6) and blocks (2.9), possessing the length and athleticism that has led to projections of anything from Giannis Antetokounmpo–Lite to Kevin Durant–Lite.

Best coach: Dana Altman, Oregon. Only two coaches who have won the league tournament will be in Las Vegas: Colorado’s Tad Boyle, who did it in 2012; and Altman, who has done it three times. What Altman lacks in charisma he makes up for in acumen, standing one victory away from an 11th straight 20-win season.

Minutes pick: USC (30).

SEC

When: Wednesday through Sunday.

Top seed: Alabama (31). The Crimson Tide (21–6, 16–2) won the league for the first time since 2002, playing at a breakneck pace but also locking down defensively. Nate Oats’s team is a fearless and athletic bunch that will occasionally play with foolhardy abandon on the offensive end, but this is a talented team that can be steadied by the senior tandem of Herbert Jones and John Petty.

Top threat to the top seed: Arkansas is the hottest team in the conference and one of the hottest in the nation, riding an 11-game-conference winning streak and playing with supreme confidence. It took a little while for Eric Musselman’s blended roster of transfers and freshmen to coalesce, but the late-season results have been impressive.

Tourney teams: Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, LSU, Missouri.

Bubble: Mississippi. The Rebels likely need to win at least a couple of games to get into serious contention.

Biggest riser: Alabama, up 38 spots from 46 to 8.

Biggest faller: Texas A&M, down 63 spots from 66 to 129.

Best early-round matchup: Kentucky (9–15) is down, but Kentucky is not without talent. If the Wildcats get past Mississippi State in their first game, an early quarterfinal matchup with an Alabama team that beat the ’Cats twice will draw high interest.

Best player: Moses Moody, Arkansas. The freshman swingman is a first-round talent whose stock keeps rising. He can shoot it from deep (9 of 17 his last two games), get to the basket (10 of 13 from two-point range in that time) and draw fouls (33 free throws in two February games against Alabama and LSU). Can he take over this tournament?

Best coach: John Calipari, Kentucky. Hasn’t been his best work this season, but Cal has won this tourney six times, in addition to taking UK to four Final Fours and winning one of them.

Minutes pick: Arkansas (32).

Southland

When: Tuesday through Saturday.

Top seed: Nicholls State. Playing six seniors extensively, the Colonels (17–6, 14–2) have won 15 of their last 16 to claim their first outright league championship since 1998.

Top threat to the top seed: Abilene Christian. A two-point loss at Central Arkansas in late February cost the Wildcats their first Southland regular-season title. They have been the league’s best defensive team, although their harassing pressure leads to a problematic propensity for fouling.

Best player: Zach Nutall, Sam Houston State. The junior guard averages 18.9 points and 5.6 rebounds, and he’s capable of going off when the threes are falling (36 points against SMU, 33 twice in league games).

Best coach: Joe Golding, Abilene Christian. After taking some lumps transitioning up from Division II, Golding’s record is 68–22 the last three seasons. Abilene was the Southland’s last Big Dance rep, after winning the 2019 league tourney.

Minutes pick: Abilene Christian (33).

SWAC

When: Wednesday through Saturday.

Top seed: Prairie View A&M. The Panthers (14–4, 13–0) haven’t lost since 2020, when they were playing Power 6 opponents in guarantee games.

Top threat to the top seed: Jackson State. The Tigers (11–5, 11–0) also went undefeated in league play, but they didn’t get to play Prairie View in the regular season. Here’s hoping the two meet up in the championship game.

Best player: Tristan Jarrett, Jackson State. He’s averaging 20.1 points per game, in part because he spends a lot of time at the foul line and has increased his accuracy there from 70% to 84% year over year. His three-point accuracy also is up nine percentage points this season.

Best coach: Prairie View A&M’s Byron Smith has won the league three straight years, going 54–30 overall in that time and 43–5 in SWAC games.

Minutes pick: Prairie View (34).

WAC

When: Thursday through Saturday.

Top seed: Grand Canyon. The Antelopes (15–6, 9–3) won only two of their final five games, but they piled up enough victories early in the league slate to take the title. Bryce Drew’s team has been tough at the defensive end.

Top threat to the top seed: New Mexico State. The Aggies’ schedule looks like a ransom note, with no home games, just one game against Division I competition prior to Jan. 29, and more than a month without games early on. But Chris Jans is still the coach, which means New Mexico State is supremely dangerous.

Best player: Grand Canyon’s Asbjorn Midtgaard is a differentiating presence at this level, a 7-footer who weighs in at 270 and can control the paint and the backboard. He’s made 72.4% of his two-point shots on the season.

Best coach: Jans. He was 83–17 his first three seasons at New Mexico State, and has still cobbled together a winning record (10–7) in this mess of a season.

Minutes pick: New Mexico State (35).

LITERARY CORNER

The Minutes is always on the lookout for good reads about college hoops, and here comes a great one from Friend of Minutes Dana O’Neil (36) of The Athletic: “The Big East: Inside the Most Entertaining and Influential Conference in College Basketball History.” The book intricately details how the league was born, its 1980s heyday, subsequent deconstruction and eventual resurrection. If you loved the brawls and ball of the past in Madison Square Garden and other East Coast cathedrals, you’ll love this book—and its arresting cover photo of Patrick Ewing (37) going in to demolish a rim. Available for presale order here.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Pat Kelsey (38), Winthrop. His 23–1 team stormed through the Big South tournament, winning three games by an average of 25.7 points per game. The Eagles have only lost one game, by two points. They have a beguiling point forward in senior Chandler Vaudrin, a wide load in the low post in D.J. Burns Jr., and plenty of shooters. They play fast and substitute in waves. This is the best of Kelsey’s nine Winthrop teams, and some team from a power conference will have a tough first-round draw.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS HOME

Greg Gard (39), Wisconsin. There was a lot to unpack from Wisconsin-Iowa Sunday, including the fact that it was dubiously officiated in some key stretches and took forever to be decided. That led to a strident harangue from Gard after the game in defense of his controversial guard, Brad Davison. But the bottom line is that Davison’s rep as a dirty player is not without merit, and by now there isn’t much his coach can do to dispel that. And beyond that is this bottom line: Wisconsin has lost three in a row, five of its last six and hasn’t beaten an NCAA tournament team since January. Gard’s team is staggering into the postseason.

BUZZER BEATER

In honor of the entire NCAA tournament’s relocation to Indiana next week, The Minutes recommends grabbing some quality Hoosier State beer to enhance your viewing pleasure. The specific tout, just about anything from Upland Brewing Company (40), based in Bloomington but with taprooms elsewhere as well. Thank The Minutes later, and good luck with your brackets.